Born David Robert Jones on January 8th, 1947, the cultural and rock icon David Bowie navigated his way through music, theater, and film like a chameleon. Known for his outlandish though purposeful alter egos, he changed the way audiences viewed art, creating performance pieces, backstories, and personalities that drove his music to become more than a series of pleasant notes. His willingness to adapt to the changing landscape of entertainment has been emulated (and still is), but never matched. And for all the care with which he constructed his fictional alter-egos, the real David Bowie seemed to be at home right here in New York City as just another fellow Villager.
Born in the Brixton district of London, Bowie formed his first band, the Konrads, in 1962 at the age of 15. Unhappy with his bandmates’ limited aspirations, he would bounce around between various outfits such as the King Bees and the Manish Boys, recording singles in the soul, rock, and funk styles. After changing his name to differentiate himself from Davy Jones of the Monkees, Bowie released his self-titled debut album on June 1st, 1967. It failed to make an impression.
His 1969 ode to the alienated astronaut Major Tom, Space Oddity (inspired by the recently-released work of another Villager, Stanley Kubrick’ 2001: A Space Odyssey), while considered a classic today, was a only minor hit at first in the United Kingdom (it much more successfully re-entered the charts in the United States in the early 1970s — an unusual feat). The album that it appeared on, his second (also strangely self-titled), again failed to make a lasting impression. Determined to hone his sound, he employed the use of a backing band to help make his third album, The Man Who Sold The World. Tackling themes such as schizophrenia, paranoia, and delusion, coupled with his androgynous look on the album’s cover, interest began to take shape.
During the tour to support the album, Bowie suddenly locked onto a concept that would, unknowingly, launch him into superstardom. Fusing proto-punk and pop, inspired by the likes of Iggy Pop and Lou Reed, with whom we would eventually collaborate, Bowie unleashed Ziggy Stardust, and his backing band The Spiders from Mars, on February 1, 1972 (after releasing 1971’s Hunky Dory).
With a wild stage show featuring multiple costume changes and intense smoke and lighting, Bowie toured the UK, amassing a huge following. Unwilling to stick to this new persona permanently, Bowie would shed Ziggy and move to New York in 1974, where he would mingle with the likes of Andy Warhol and hang out at Max’s Kansas City.
A year later, he would record his first number one US hit at Greenwich Village’s Electric Lady Studios on West 8th Street (also the home of other classic albums such as The Clash’s Combat Rock, Led Zeppelin’s Physical Graffiti, and Patti Smith’s Horses, among many others). Fame, featured on the album Young Americans, was co-written by Bowie and John Lennon (whose voice is also heard on the recording singing “Fame,” at initially sped up and then gradually slowed down speeds), and funk guitarist Carlos Alomar, who had worked extensively with James Brown.
It wouldn’t be until 1992, after marrying his wife, Somalian-born model and actress Iman, and getting caught briefly in the Los Angeles riots, that he would settle back into New York City once again. In 1999, he bought two buildings and created a penthouse at 285 Lafayette Street.
For many years Bleecker Bob’s at 118 West 3rd Street (now a frozen yogurt shop) was a staple of his weekly routine, often shopping for new records and scouting the ever-evolving musical landscape.
Caffe Reggio on 119 MacDougal Street, which first opened its doors in 1927, was also reportedly a favorite spot of his, where he would often be found reading. By his own admission, one of his favorite books was Kafka Was the Rage – A Greenwich Village Memoir by Anatole Broyard.
Washington Square Park, too, like generations of artists before and after him, exerted a siren’s call upon him. This “…place where people from all walks of life collide and mingle…”, represented something special to him. Beneath all the makeup, he was simply looking for peace, for a place to rest and watch New Yorkers stroll by. It is often reported that Bowie considered himself a true resident, and, after his cancer diagnosis, used his home on Lafeyette Street as a spark to realize his two final projects: A New Day and Blackstar.
Though he kept his diagnosis hidden from the public, his final album captures his anxiety and hope of what the future held for him. One of Bowie’s last projects was co-writing Lazarus, a musical sequel to The Man Who Fell to Earth (and a spinoff of Blackstar), which premiered at the New York Theatre Workshop at 79 East 4th Street. Although the show closed a few days after his death, he spent much time in the theater collaborating and getting his songs just right.
On January 10th, 2016, just two days after his 69th birthday and release of his final album Blackstar, Ziggy Stardust returned home. Bowie’s passing was shocking and unexpected, to say the least, and his home was littered with tributes for weeks after. Glam rock, pop, punk, dance, electro, funk and soul music were never the same after Bowie dipped his toe into the waters of the music industry, and imitators will certainly come and go. His time in our neighborhoods was quite long for an icon of his stature (almost 30 years), and though some say his true home is probably on a distant planet in some far off galaxy, we know that he was most definitely an integral part of the Village’s unique history.